The government of the Versatile Kingdom of Azania is a difficult one to categorize under traditional definitions... At best, Azania is a semi-absolute monarchy whereby most authority is vested in the reigning monarch. Historically, since the reign of the VERSATILE QUEEN IVY, Azania has been a matriarchy where the throne was occupied solely by a non-dynastic line of VERSATILE QUEENS.
Each successive Queen was chosen by the previous monarch from the covenant known as the ABOHDADE. From time to time during this period of Matriarchy, Azania had a parliament whom derived their authority from powers vested in it by the VERSATILE QUEEN, powers that she could effectively restrict, expand, or completely take away and dissolve parliament all together.
Since the death of THE ELDERS, the realm now known as Azania has been ruled by a SACRED VERSATILE QUEEN (with only one exception when an ELDER ruled the country).
Today, as created through the SACRED VERSATILE QUEEN IVY, the monarch serves as the sole authority within the Kingdom. A Noble Conclave, seated by the various noble houses of the country, serves as a privy council to the monarch.
Since that time, the title has been maintained and passed on from one woman to the next, in a nondynastic line of SACRED VERSATILE QUEENS.
This title was bestowed upon the first SACRED VERSATILE QUEEN, Ivy, by Pope Francis, in the year 2014 .
Each house controls a territory within the Kingdom of Azania, and in the name of the monarch, rules over this local territory.
Stipulations at the time where that the SACRED VERSATILE QUEEN be not a virgin, and that this be maintained as the ruling Queen was to emulate that of the once powerful, Mother of the First Elder.
Land can be distributed and re-distributed between the houses at the ruling monarchâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s discretion. The exact and extent of the authority each noble house wieldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s in their territory is also at the discretion of the ruling monarch...
Each successive SACRED VERSATILE QUEEN since the time of the FIRST VERSATILE IVY, has been chosen by their predecessor from a covenant of nuns known as the ABODADE, women devoted to live their lives as The Mother of the First Elder.
The SACRED VERSATILE QUEENâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;S power has, since the foundation of the Kingdom, been absolute.
It also exercises most of its power through the various ministers of the Royal Cabinet.
From time to time, the monarchy has bestowed certain legislative powers to legislative bodies, the last being a bicamerial parliament.
FULL TITLE OF THE SACRED QUEEN:
Today however, the monarchyâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s power is absolute and the crown serves as both executive and legislative body of the Kingdom. Both Head of State as well as Head of Government, the SACRED QUEEN is the sole force steering the direction of the Kingdom. Among the crowns absolute power, the SACRED QUEEN determines and sets the domestic and foreign policy of the Azania, decrees laws, resolves problems arises in all levels of government, and grant pardons.
Her Royal Versatile Majesty,..............by the Grace of *** bleep sound *** , Sacred Versatile Queen and Autocrat of All Azania, of Saint Alexandria, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Sacred Queen of Maseru, Sacred Queen of Lobamba, Sacred Queen of Mbabane, Bhisho, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Pietermaritzburg, Durban, Polokwane, Nelspruit, Rustenburg, Kimberley, Saint Helena Isle, Ascension Isle, Protector of the Azanian Church, Keeper of the Prophecies of FUTURE WHITE WOMEN , Revered Mother of the sisterhood of ABODADE, Matriarch of the Noble Conclave, and blessed Mother to the Azanian people. The Sisterhood of ABODADE is a nunnery
In practice, the monarchy makes most decisions from the advice of a privy council, the Noble Conclave.
whose establishment was originally designed for the sole purpose of providing a heir
for the throne. The sisters of the order model themselves after the FIRST MOTHER OF ELDERS. They are seen with great respect in the eyes of the populace. Sisters of the order can be distinguished by the veils which they constantly wear and are so thick that no one can see their faces. It is actually against the law to see a Sister’s face. The order is head by a DADEMKHULU of whom is the right-hand of the SACRED QUEEN and was historically the SACRED VERATILE QUEEN’S heir. However, since the SACRED QUEEN is now of a single bloodline, the Sisterhood’s role has changed. Though they still service the Queen, they no longer provide an heir for her and continue hold little power or influence within the New Azania.
GRAHAMSTOWN CAPE TOWN
SAN FRANCISCO JOHANNESBURG VENICE All rights reserved, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, electronic, photocopying, or other means without the prior permission of the copyright holders.
© Images and works: Athi Patra-Ruga
1 Argyle Street Woodstock Cape Town South Africa 7925 firstname.lastname@example.org www.whatiftheworld.com
87 - 140
Unpicking the Azanian Seam
When Sheroes Appear
Mary Corrigall 89 - 94
Missla Libsekal interviews Athi-Patra Ruga 143 -154
Natasha Norman 155 - 160
Design by Ben Johnson
THE F.W.W.O.A SAGA
Fated to Pretend Printed in South Africa
© Whatiftheworld 2014
RF OB OR SC MA UR A G R A H A M STOW N
Performance Stills: Performa Obscura (pg x-xx) & Performa Obscura, Provost Jail (pg xx - xx) Making Way exhibition, Grahamstown Produced in collaboration with Mikhael Subotzsky Site specific performance duration variable Photographer: Ruth Simbao
C A P E TOW N
Performance Stills: Study I Young Black Man project space, Cape town 2010 Duration Variable
T MA HE NI FE S
C A P E TOW N
Performance Stills: The Manifesto 2013 Performance with two performers, UV lights and installation. Duration Variable Photographer: Ashley Walters
OF EL D AZ ER AN IA SA N F R A N C I S C O
Performance Stills: The Elder of Azania 2014 Performance with Five performers, costumes and audio visual material commissioned by SFMOMA & Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts as part of the exhibition Public Intimacy Photography: Ian Reeves
‘THE ELDER O F A Z A N I A’
Animation Stills: The Elder of Azania 2014 commissioned by SFMOMA & Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts as part of the exhibition Public Intimacy
Performance Stills: X -HOMES Hillbrow Johannesburg, 2010
T FO HE UN D MY IN TH G VENICE
Performance Stills: The Founding Myth 2013 Site specific performance, five performers, audio and props Duration Variable South African Pavilion, 55 La Biennale di Venezia, Venice
2013 / 2014
TH E FW WO A SA GA EXHIBITION
Unpicking the Azanian Seam By Mary Corrigall
“Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined,” Benedict Anderson 1 . As with most nations Azania is both real and fictional. For the archaeologists of the 1930s (and today – Azania is the name of a journal dedicated to archaeology on the African continent) Azania referred to the remains of an ancient, pre-colonial society buried in the soil of Mapungubwe in the Limpopo province in South Africa. No doubt this idea is what fed Evelyn Waugh’s projections of a fictional Azania in Black Mischief (1932), an imaginative primitivist literary product engineered to demonstrate that “our twentieth-century civilization is a decaying corpse.” 2 Conversely, this imagined pre-colonial state was revived and refashioned to form a staple part of liberation rhetoric in South Africa in the 1960s when the Pan Africanist Congress renamed the country Azania as a way of mobilising African nationalist sentiment and rejecting the “colonially imposed name.” 3 Through this politicised lens, Azania morphed from being an imagined
ancient society into a model for a future state, where ideas of liberation, unity and equality became synonymous with Azania. This idea was concretised in the Black Consciousness Movement slogan “One Azania, One Nation.” 4
the country’s democracy. It may never be realised, nor need it be to exist for as Benedict Arnold 6 suggests “nationalism is not the awakening of nations to selfconsciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”
This utopian dream that Azania presented might have ushered in hope for the future but its unattainability planted a seed of dispossession, a sense of deep loss for this absent place at odds with a reality governed by apartheid policies. This sentiment is captured in a collection of elegiac poems titled Azanian Love Song by journalist and poet Don Mattera. Reflecting on the titular poem Es’kia Mphahlele observes “the slow grinding pain in an African mother who raises children for a distant future far beyond her grasp.” 5 This sense of dispossession is not misplaced, but rather that Azania has become a shorthand for it.
Azania looms as this virtual tabula rasa on which the ambitions and ideas of politicians, writers, historians and artists project the future - or its absence. This is the paradox that haunts Athi-Patra Ruga’s reimaging of Azania in his White Women of Azania performances and in his object-based work, where he confronts viewers with faux cultural artefacts derived from this state. Some are rendered in out-dated mediums, enhancing this idea that they are historical relics from Azania, thus substantiating its long existence. A stained glass work titled Azania (2013) boasts what appears to be the official insignia of this state: a Zebra and a ballooned character dubbed The White Woman of Azania. Tapestries narrate pivotal historic moments of this nation’s faux history, compacting ‘the facts’ in such a way that they are transformed into the myth of this nation. In this way these pseudo museum ‘artefacts’
Some continue to refer to South Africa as Azania - conferring it with a seemingly tangible geographical position, however, Azania functions as a binding narrative about a nation that is yet to be realised in twenty years into 89
obscure its history rather than shed any light on it. The tapestry Invitation… Presentation… Induction (2013), which figures a confrontation between the White Women of Azania and a group of men wielding traditional African weapons such as spears and shields from animal pelts, recalls historic representations of skirmishes between colonials and indigenous South Africans, causing an uncanny inversion of Azania and Azanians as the ‘natural’ citizens of this ‘promised’ land. This reading positions them as pseudo-colonials or neo-colonials, and perhaps ultimately as a displaced nation. It is this sense of displacement that presumably motivates an assiduous cultivation of rituals and cultural artefacts or visual rhetoric as it legitimises Azania’s existence and its inhabitants’ belief that they occupy and are part of this nation. Arnold 7 suggests that nationalism in itself is a cultural artefact of sorts. Efforts at making Azania real, however, are thwarted by Ruga’s mode of expression, which is defined by hyperartificiality and parody. The White 90
1 2 3 4 5
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, New York: Verso, 2006: 6 Charles. J. Rolo, Evelyn Waugh: the best and the worst, The Atlantic (online), October 1954. https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/54oct/rolo.htm Thami ka Plaatjie, The PAC in Exile in The Road to Democracy in South Africa: 1970-1980, Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2006:17 Dwight N. Hopkins, Black Theology USA and South Africa: Politics, Culture and Liberation, Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2005:25 Introduction in Azanian Love Song, Johannesburg: African Perspectives Publishing, 2007:viii
Woman (and Women) of Azania performances (2010-to date), which preceded the object-based works delineating the context and universe they hail from, set this approach. Their characteristic costume consists of bright plastic balloons tied together, obscuring the upper body while the legs of the subject are concealed by layers of stockings. This renders the body unreal, makes it appear cartoon-like. So while this character is super colourful, she (the stilettoes and stockings imply a female) is of an indeterminate race and the ‘whiteness’ referenced in her name implies a more abstract or ideological definition rather than one dependent on skin-tone – perhaps in Azania anyone can chose to be ‘white’ or maybe Ruga’s Azania is the imagined ‘whites-only’ state that guided the skewed politics of the apartheid era. Once again Ruga offers a multiple reading of Azania as a utopian state hailing from the past, with references to the colonial or apartheid era, and a future place sustained by black consciousness ideology. This paradoxical juxtaposition of realities naturally destabilises, if not
6 7 8
Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, New York: Verso, 2006: 6 Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, New York: Verso, 2006::4 Nontando Mposo, Twitter Storm over Zille’s Bodibe pictures, IOL News (online), March 18, 2014. http://www.iol.co.za/news/politics/twitter-storm-over-zille-sbodibe-2pictures-1.1662942#.U3CMLa2SxCM Political commentator Gareth Van Onselen refers to Mmusi Maimane, a leader within Zille’s party as “a hollow man” in a Business Day article (online), April 22, 2014. http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2014/04/22/mmusi-maimane-the-hollow-man
cancels out, each of these opposing scenarios as the ambitions of black consciousness movement obviously conflict with those of a white-dominated society. Ruga parodies the notion of this future black homeland by implying that it is an echo of what has existed before and is ruled by the titular “white women” – this echoes the current political reality in the Western Cape, a province run by the Democratic Alliance, which is headed by a white woman, Helen Zille, who is often 8 mocked for trying to appear African by wearing traditional garb or partaking in any mores that are deemed to ‘belong’ to black people. This ridiculous looking character could also refer to black leaders who profit from fronting white capital interests, referred to as ‘coconuts’ or “hollow men” 9. Ruga implies that these displaced communities use Azania as a way of anchoring their identity in this constantly shifting fantasy, which has been crafted to counter the sense of alienation they might experience in reality.
at not only destabilising this utopian state and permanently displacing the fiction, but the characters in it. Who are they and where do they belong, if their sense of belonging is tied to this fluctuating state? Displacement is an overriding theme in Ruga’s performance art practice: since 2007 it has been dominated by ambiguous characters occupying public spaces with which they are seemingly at odds. This has personal resonance for the artist – he has grappled with reconciling traditional Xhosa customs practiced in rural settings with being part of a cosmopolitan urban community in Cape Town, as well as incidences of violence and prejudice in his youth, which have overstated his exclusion. This motif also has political and psychic significance. In reference to the title of Mark Gevisser’s 2007 biography of former president Thabo Mbeki, political commentators reflecting on the ruling party’s failure to fully liberate the country, refer to the discrepancy between unrealised aspirations and reality as ‘the dream deferred’.10
Ruga presents a temporally unstable fiction. It is a fiction overwritten by other fictions and realities that constantly work
This ‘deferred dream’ gives rise to “a pervasive and variegated psychic seam” 11 that is rooted in a desire for “a
sense of place … but recoils before its lack of substance” 12. Ruga articulates this unfulfilled condition by forcing this imaginary utopian future or skewed dystopian past through a stylised lens, which offers such an exaggerated and excessive fiction that its ‘lack of substance’ is part of its character. Azania is rendered in vivid colours (like the balloon costume), the abundant foliage in the photographic series A Night of Long Knives (2013) is artificial and it is populated by tamed Zebras, beautiful women and headless entities. Dismantling, or puncturing the façade, the dream, is a significant component of the White Woman of Azania performances, which always conclude with Ruga and/or his performers violently destroying their balloon outfits by bursting them. This releases a coloured liquid inside, which serves as a residue of this ‘purging’ 13 of this façade. This conclusion delivers a form of catharsis that at first seems unexpected; yet it is in the letting go of this faux costume and its concomitant link to Azania that has become the outcome the audience anticipates and thus craves. This is partly motivated by a desire to
10 11 12 13
Paulus Zulu makes this point in A Nation in Crisi: An Appeal for Morality, Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2013: 65 Ashraf Jamal, Terror and the city. In: N Edjabe and E Pieterse, eds. The African Cities Reader: Pan African Practices. Cape town: Chimerenga and African Centre for Cities, 2010: 121 ibid “Purging” is the word that Ruga has used frequently in relation to White Women of Azania. The set for his performance in Cape Town in November 2012 boasted the word scrawled on the wall.
see the identity of the performers, to discover what exists beyond this plastic wall of colour. When all the balloons have popped, however, spectators are confronted with performers covered in sweat who make a quick exit. As a result access to what lies on the other side is somehow denied or ‘deferred’. Beyond the dream is an unpalatable and perhaps complex reality that cannot be ascertained – it is not a hypervisualised reality.
movement that draws from science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy and Afrocentricity as a means of rethinking black identity and refiguring the past and future 15 . When the term was coined in 1999 16 it initially referred to speculative fiction or visual culture, such as black-written, blackdrawn comics such as Milestone Media’s Hardware that references technology and a prosthetically enhanced future that specifically addresses AfricanAmerican concerns. Its vocabulary is described as “a syncretic crossweave of black nationalism, African and American religious beliefs, and plot devices worthy of a late-night rocket opera.” 17
Ruga trades in hypervisuality; his effusive and syncretic postmodern vocabulary, which draws from soap operas such as Dynasty, fashion spreads that perennially offer hyper stylised and clichéd interpretations of African style, and Black Panther Marvel comics that depict Azania as a state ruled by “the supermacists” who suppress the black majority until they are liberated by the Black Panther 14, firmly roots his expression in the realm of fantasy and popular culture.
One of the objectives of Afrofuturism is to break the white-dominated scifi genre and its “lock on that unreal estate” 18 . Fantasy narratives open up an imaginative space, which is denied to its creators in reality, allowing them to rewrite the past and the future. Ruga primarily views himself as a narrator, and even though his products are not textual he is continually in the process of (re)creating Azania; new characters
This aspect of his art evokes strong ties to what has been dubbed as Afrofuturism, a multidisciplinary
Marvel online database http://marvel.wikia.com/Supremacists_(Earth-616) 15 Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013: 9 Ytasha Womack, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013: 9 Mark Dery coined the term in Pyrotechnic Insanitorium in the article titled Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0. It only exists online: http://www.\ detritus.net/contact/rumori/200211/0319.html ibid ibid
and plot twists are constantly being added as he expands the storyline. Like a soap opera, the plotlines are slightly outrageous. It functions as an allegory in which South Africa’s past and future have collapsed, or coalesced into each other producing this kind of absurd fiction. Plotting this absurd Azania is a source of pleasure for Ruga; for while he channels historic associations with it, and parodies it, this Azania is of his own making. This allows him to introduce himself into the plot, such as in the tapestry Uzukile the Elder (2013), as well as other superhero-comic like characters that are able to accrue power that may be denied to them in reality. In this way Azania is able to function as Ruga’s own psychic homeland, where he is able to revisit our past and re-craft our future, according to his own whimsy and thus play with his own nationhood and identity. However, as he has constructed a universe that revels in its own artificiality he plays this game with the constant knowledge that it has no substance. Like his balloon costume, Azania is supported by air.
Corrigall is a Johannesburg based art critic, journalist, art historian and academic at the University of Johannesburg.
The Lord is on the Hoof 2013 Wool & Thread on Tapestry Canvas 180 x 190 cm
The Versatile Queen Ivy 2013 Wool & Thread on Tapestry Canvas 180 x 120 cm
Uzuko 2013 Wool, Thread & Artificial Flowers on Tapestry Canvas 200 x 180 cm
PREV PAGE: Convention...Procession...Elevation 2013 Wool & Thread on Tapestry Canvas 300 x 175 cm RIGHT: The Phoenix is a Chicken 2013 Wool & Thread on Tapestry Canvas 190 x 170 cm
The Votive Portrait of Her 2013 Wool on Tapestry Canvas 130 x 190 cm
PREV PAGE: Trust No Bitch 2013 Wool, Thread, Glue & Glitter on Tapestry Canvas 190 x 120 cm RIGHT: Uzukile the Elder 2013 Wool, Thread, Artificial Flowers & Spray Paint on Tapestry Canvas 200 x 190 cm
RIGHT: UnoZuko 2013 Wool, Thread & Artificial Flowers on Tapestry Canvas 195 x 180 cm NEXT PAGE: Invitation... Presentation...Induction... 2013 Wool & Thread on Tapestry Canvas 300 x 175 cm
The Lands of Azania (2014-2094) 2013 Wool on Tapestry Canvas 200 x 180 cm
PREV PAGES: Thud of a Snowflake High-density foam & artificial flowers Plinth: 370 x 245 x 8.5 cm Flower figure: 140 x 210 x 42 cm RIGHT: Azania; 2013 Stained glass, lead, powder coated steel Edition of 2 + 1 AP 184 x 170 cm
The Night of the Long Knives III 2013 Archival inkjet print on Photorag Baryta Edition of 5 202 x 157 cm
1 26 1 25
The Night of the Long Knives II 2013 Archival inkjet print on Photorag Baryta Edition of 5 202 x 157 cm
1 28 1 27
The Night of the Long Knives I 2013 Archival inkjet print on Photorag Baryta Edition of 5 202 x 157 cm
NEXT LEFT: The Future White Woman of Azania I 2012 Archival inkjet print on hahnemuehle paper Edition of 5 + 3AP 80 x 120 cm
NEXT RIGHT: The Future White Woman of Azania II 2012 Archival inkjet print on hahnemuehle paper Edition of 5 + 3AP 80 x 120 cm
130 1 29
Film Stills: The Purge 2013 Commissioned by Puma Films for Peace Duration 2.29 minutes
When Sheroes Appear
What is it that carries performative practice into the domain of the radical? There are numerous equally plausible answers. During my conversations in May 2014 with performance artist Athi-Patra Ruga he spoke of grace. Art historian, critic and curator Rosalee Goldberg asserts that “Performance is a much more aggressive way to get work out there in the world. It remains radical because it is live and demands attention.”1 This very aspect led me to ask Ruga what he thought audiences needed in order to engage with his work? He replies “to be open, to experience and share”, the symbiotic yet unpredictable relationship between performer and audience made possible through grace. The core medium in Ruga’s practice is his body, a tool that he rigorously designs as much as any other material within his vernacular. With it he choreographs performances and residual artefacts to communicate on politics and pressing matters born out of his personal history and geographic experiences. His extraordinariness may indeed come from his ability to induce perceptual shifts and self-reflection, when mundane ebbs are cloaked in absurdity and seeming eccentricity. His fictional characters, avatars as he often refers to them, such as Injibhabha 20072008, Beiruth 2009 Ilulwane 2012, and now more recently the Future White Women of Azania 2013 are gender ambivalent beings that evade categorisation. They are beings bent on blurring the lines between witness, actor and acted-upon. Through them the unspoken is manifested, transgressed and shereos* sometimes appear.
Missla Libsekal interviews Athi-Patra Ruga
M.L You’ve used the phrase “counter penetration” to title past works and describe your practice. It sounds militant and erotic, and naturally piques curiosity; can you elaborate on what it means?
incredible shape in the performance and photographic work Even I Exist in Embo Jaundiced Tales of Counter penetration. That work was an antagonistic reply to a clearly xenophobic poster from a SVP [Swiss People’s Party] political poster in 2007. It had a displacing effect on minorities contrary to the utopian stereotype. Also it goes to the extent that in my backyard is this two-way ideology of the utopia - an alternative nation somehow. The title is a nod to Nicola Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego [Even I Exist in ARCADIA]. Embo is the original nation of a Bantu.
A.P I used that term in reference to what formed the core of my early performance works. Initially, I was fascinated with doing these nonsensical rituals of clearing the air in places that come with some pre-conception. This was in downtown Johannesburg around 2005, and the world cup had just been announced, spelling a series of forced removals and controlled rent schemes. It was at the height of President Mbeki’s AIDS denialist phase. It felt foreign to people, including me. So my goal was to insert myself into these spaces that carried some prejudged story.
M.L This insertion into inbetween spaces is typically hard yet rewarding. Can you talk about your experiences, given that your practice exists between different aesthetic traditions such as fashion, performance, neo-classical and pop art...?
M.L Some years back we spoke of art’s capacity to bring attention to grey areas in power dynamics. Which character within your practice set this trajectory?
A.P I think it boils down to having the will to dematerialise the respective media, maybe tools is what they end up being. I still have what I think is the core of fashion, which is to simplify a complex idea. Design is the tool I take from that. Scale is what I’m
A.P Miss Congo was the first character to do this, but it took 145
Goldberg, RosaLee. “ Rosalee Goldberg in Conversation with Shirin Neshat and Wangechi Mutu” Performa 11. New York Public Library, New York. 5 Oct. 2011. Lecture.
into at the moment; it also happens to be the element that is common in design and important for the narrative The Future White Women of Azania.
with narrative is to create a displaced satirical subplot. It is interesting to be able to transcend with the characters I make, to places that are ideas of utopia and heaven that are acceptable to me; sometimes they betray me revealing my own prejudgements. It also provides the opportunity to create from scratch new identities that create a democratic space for interpretations by the audience.
M.L What connects the trajectory of your performances and themes, particularly as your early performances developed with singular avatars whereas F.W.W.O.A. has several characters? A.P Since Injibhabha, in retrospect I can see an obvious tale of imaginary environments - bringing to mind a need to insert myself into space. Yeah it is sexual - it’s also transgressive. I like to focus on how a performance can be transgressive, the outdoors and the audience help a lot. The art if indeed it is... comes from the clash in memory
TROJAN HORSES & SPACE TO THINK
Owing to his urban interventionist roots, Ruga’s quality which I see as being cleverly guerilla-esque is about the act of intervening into stifled/inert political spaces be they the white walls of the gallery, the hills alive with the so called sound of music or where he is perhaps most at home, the street - where chance and chemistry with the audience can collide to become most potent. Tomfoolery and the seemingly eccentric are his Trojan horse. Ruga dons his uniform of sorts - a pair of heels, coloured tights, leotard and the finessing other elements that make each character razor-sharp, specific and unique. As Injibhabha [meaning hairline in isiXhosa crafted from bundles of synthetic afro-like hair pranced on Swiss alps, lounged on carousels and peered into fancy boutiques lining Zurich’s boulevards, the figurative black sheep that the Swiss People’s party xenophobic campaign was literally trying to kick out and elide was becoming much like a hairline fracture - present, sharp and unrelenting. Ruga’s latest performance the Future White Women of Azania, first revealed in 2012 unfolds an epic fable about a nation in waiting: its ascent, climax and possible demise. This ambiguous saga riffs off an idea closely tied to an apartheid era South African movement and political ideology - the dream of an idyllic African state. It is his most ambitious work to date; a narrative with five characters, a national flower, crest, and animal including the rainbow coloured balloon characters, which he describes as “cute”, then laughs He reveals that one of his goals was to make a myth accessible even for children. A cute figure that has the capacity to be festive, create fanfare yet become disquieting when it violently pops and bleeds.
M.L Trauma, purging/catharsis and healing are some of your thematic preoccupations; how do you situate your art making as a means to understand the history of popular image making?
Departing from Ruga’s experience growing up in the rainbow nation, post-apartheid and post 90s era South Africa, Azania is a journey exploring this notion of a merry Africa which vacillates between dream or nightmare, depending on your perspective of course. Enticing and grotesque, if F.W.W.O.A. is indeed successful, it will be because we are left with space to think about what human existence is like.
A.P By bearing witness to the times I live in. One of the tools I am able to use 1 47
M.L .Is loneliness ever part of your journey as an artist a performer and a spectacle?
A.P Procession is a motif that symbolises eminent change or revolutions. The Toyi-Toyi is a popular protest march here in South Africa. The march on the Bastille. The Russian constructivists lifted it up to something god-like. It is also cathartic and is literally a non-verbal way that convinces one of a bond.
A.P Indeed, all the time. The antidote to that comes in maybe creating these nation states and fictional characters to go with them. There’s a democracy that hands a fantasy to the viewer of the Azanian saga. Inserting The Elder of Azania is me exploring my space within Azania. Also it serves as a revelation of my personal/geographical dynamics.
In the F.W.W.O.A. along with the cathartic nation-finding tool of pageantry/ procession you see a figure carrying out a humanist act of firstly purging the weight of the liquid or substance in the balloon vessels that the figure is confounded and choreographed by and secondly by the revelation of the airy, latex identity of the performer, through the popping and sacrifice of the balloon armour
M.L It’s interesting that you often refer to “procession” in your work. In contemporary times we perhaps use the words protest or parade more commonly. A.P Procession is people moving with a subject, or with a complaint or a goal, a collective desire that is standard in people moving from one space to another. I am also obsessed with it; particularly as performing is also a lonesome thing.
M.L the responses that appearance/ costume and materiality elicit are fascinating. A.P It’s a skill. I think that is where costume comes in. It is this ability to seduce or repel, also confront. Most of the time, I think people are wondering what gender I am with this character, because there is the leotard underneath
In what capacity is procession a part of the F.W.W.O.A.?
it, there’s the heels - this covering. That wondering allows me to escape, to be anything that I want to be.
even stains out of the balloons. How do you choose this materiality? A.P They are part of my response, technical but also material response to the actual area and the stories I want to execute. Is it going to be bleeding or is it going to be fanfare! There are these two effects that I can now have with them which also communicates different emotions, that I want to use to try to make my character more round.
M.L You performed this piece on the streets of Johannesburg, when something unexpected happened as you entered the final leg of the procession, when the ballooned characters tried to enter the gallery through the revolving doors? A.P [Laugh] it just threw us out. It just puked us out but when we got in, we started popping these balloons and making a beautiful powdery mess; which was fabulous. That was a beautiful story about nation-finding and actually probably the history of South Africa and where we find ourselves... from The Treason Trials, liberation and this period of principles that founded the spirit of this new nation - South Africa - but on the parallel of Azania of course and when the procession goes to capital which is basically where we find ourselves now in South Africa or this post 90s period.
M.L What would you say is your “it”, the element that moves audiences to democratically find their fantasy / interpretation? A.P My “it” is the grace shown by the audience, passive or active. We are usually in a space that makes the mundane seem silly by restaging actual rituals, but made into nonsense. This involves entering into conversation during a performance as to why the work is being performed. M.L Each performance however planned is also organic, when the lines between witness, actor and acted-upon blurs: where sheroes
M.L I see a specific intent in terms of material resonating with a given location i.e. what spills, flutters and 150
sometimes appear. Is there one from this saga to date that stands out?
Following his most recent performance The Elder of Azania at SFMOMA and his oral presentation at South Africa’s seminal design conference, Design Indaba, I had the chance to catch up with Ruga in March 2013 at an art gathering in Cape Town. As one of the hosts, he concocted a cocktail for the affair, The Azanian Clusterfuck. If the name didn’t give it away, the ingredients a medley of bourbon, rum, chartreuse, bitters, Jagermeister and tequila [the later being optional] certainly did. He offers me one, which I politely decline; Ruga is a trickster, living and breathing his art. As with this cocktail and his formal artworks, the tapestries, photography, fibreglass monument, short film and stained glass window Ruga is intent on sublimating Azania into this world. Art critic Mary Corrigall astutely wrote, “ His interest is in the visual rhetoric that reproduces fantasy (like the fashion, art and religious machines).” 2 His choice in media and visual language reads contemporary, yet they are the age-old iconography that makes history [and our part] in its making tangible.
A.P The route for that Grahamstown procession was pre-planned. There was a space that was described as a township, it was something beyond me what the situation required. It was the first time in 8 years since I began performing, that I returned to the township to perform in a camp space. I was beaten up, spat on, kicked as a camp kid. So I thought of it as returning to the scene of the crime. In this return, I wanted to clean up that space. I began to cry, the weight of the balloons was Herculean, painful... but as I walked they were popping, lightening the load. As I thought I would I be spat on, I began to cry - so hard. In this moment, I saw an old man walking with a child, perhaps his grandchild. He came up to me as I was busy balling my eyes out then asked me why it was that I was crying. It wasn’t the simplicity of the question; it was the grace of the gesture.
M.L This body of work is much grander scale compared to your previous narratives - from a singular avatar to a nation, Azania, with all its nation making accoutrements. As each of your characters were born from personal departure points i.e. to screw with gender roles and power where did F.W.W.O.A. burst?
worth. You can say that Beiruth is the spirit leading this work; the F.W.W.O.A. and Beiruth share this confrontational streak. However now with the F.W.W.O.A. I wanted to continue the emotional range of the full narrative. The cathartic action that fit perfectly with a character was an obsession of mine while creating the framework and the ethics of the story. So the balloon character came to represent what the F.W.W.O.A. was about. The story from that christening of the balloon character always felt larger than me, as it was a story that could bind people together and dare I say form a new nation ... BOOOM ...
A.P When I started toying with F.W.W.O.A., I wanted to create a story that could be told or add to a toddler’s indigenous library of myths and legends; with all the elements of a story - above all some moral argument about beauty and self 151
Corrigall, Mary. “When the Party is Over: Athi-Patra Ruga.” Incorrigible Corrigall, 17, Dec. 2013. Web. 24 May. 2014.
Nationhood. That is what the narrative would base itself on.
M.L There are numerous expansive rich elements that you’ve introduce recently in F.W.W.O.A. i.e. the visual rhetoric that makes the Azanian fictional nation “present” and tangible. For instance increasing the scale of the tapestries, or introducing monuments and stained glass. What was your intention?
M.L Most of your characters are masked (Ilulwane, Beiruth, Injibhabha and now the F.W.W.O.A.). Is it the first time that you’ve revealed your face, your likeness in the work for example in character Uzukile the Elder? A.P The last time my character revealed my face was with Miss Congo. The subsequent ones were intentionally covered, for many reasons really ranging from self-preservation to a fine-tuning of my Azanian library i.e. masking whether it be paint [Miss Congo] or masks and brutalist use of materials [The FWWOA / Injibhabha]. Beiruth’s mask resembles West African ritualistic masks; this is a tool I’ve kept up to now with The Abodade who resemble the Eyo masquerade of the Yoruba. Uzukile [ Man - Grace ] is the third of a triptych I did alongside Nozuko [ Girl - Grace ], and uZuko [ Miss Azania - Grace]. The elder of Azania is uZukile by name, and is the only male figure in the piece. His face will be showing a lot, as he is the narrator.
A.P For the creation of the F.W.W.O.A. and of a recreation of the land of Azania, I chose media or tools that were grand in scale, neo-classical in their messages of revolution and morals. I find with stained glass you have this object that is public and highly accessible, along with the scale of the tapestries that suggest in depiction a screwed up narrative of Azania. Lifelike sculptures etc. are the tools that I see that are used in identifying a nation period. Performatively, I am drawn to using the processionary element of statemaking/building, from the F.W.W.O.A.’s durational processions while popping to the inclusion of a beauty queen in the form of uZuko [ Miss Azania ]. M.L Azania is beautiful and screwed up as it were; the utopia has problems! 1 53
A.P Of course! Because as I am creating it, there is this whole thing that I want to actually speak about. The lifeline of a revolution. The lifeline of an empire. How it rises, prospers and how it falls. So I need for those problems to be there. The objects that Azanians collect, or the portrait as a performance of sorts. Those will be the clues that carry the story, and then theatrical works will also create the beautiful arches that connect the story.
how migrations are mapped to augment some pretence of heritage. M.L Poetry indeed. You mentioned there are numerous sagas/chapters in development for this young nation. What else is in store? A.P I am exploring the idea of exile; South Africa idealises and glorifies the idea of exile. I am interested in the decadence that happens when people have gone into exile. Taking from art history, Duchamp, Man Ray, Le Corbusier as well as political artists who moved to America etc. from South Africa. Was there any sex, drugs, and rock and roll? [laughs] I want to deal with them going into exile and their return to take over. So there will be a period of a revolution, there will be more war tapestries and battle scenes.
M.L Beyond the evident craftsmanship, satire is clearly another tool. The names of the nations charted on the map, the Lands of Azania (2014 2094). Isn’t Bubba-Kush [what is now known in modern times as Ethiopia], a popular strain of marijuana? I had so much fun; the map series is proving to be quite awesome. I am on one level intervening into history and the power plays involved in nationhood. The changing of the names is a purging, a reimagining of the world I want, Azanians want. The act of renaming Uganda “New Sodom” and writing it into an everlasting tapestry record had some poetry. LOL. I think I am fascinated by
M.L What propels you, makes it consequential and worth it? A.P To be able to tell the story in its entirety is what gives me stamina because there is still so much to tell and perform out of the story, of the Future White Women of Azania. The audience’s 154
response is something that gets me through it, because that is when I can gauge my accessibility. M.L Lastly, referencing the stained glass piece, can you divulge what is the noun for someone who should have known better? Azania of course! Missla Libsekal is an independent publisher and writer based in Vancouver. She is the founder and editor of online platform ANOTHERFAFRICA.NET, a journal dedicated to contemporary art and cultural practices. “The arts are not a first-world luxury, Another Africa is intended to be a constant reminder of this.’
Missla Libsekal is an independent publisher and writer based in Vancouver. She is the founder and editor of online platform ANOTHERFAFRICA.NET, a journal dedicated to contemporary art and cultural practices. “The arts are not a first-world luxury, Another Africa is intended to be a constant reminder of this.’ 1 55
Fated to Pretend 1 By
In the exotic, the beautiful, Marrakesh the exiled Future White Woman of Azania writes her manifesto.
images in religion and politics (Latour 2002: 26-27) the better to comment on objectivity as something residing within the rapid movement of one image to another, a type of image intertextuality4. Ruga’s portrayal of The Versatile Queen Ivy references Neo-Classical political heroes, Greek thinkers as well as Communist revolutionaries, such that she is a nondescript signifier of political greatness and intelligence undercut by the fact that the pen she holds has a cute fluffy feather attached to its end that also alludes to the Hollywood rom-com Legally Blonde (2001). To unravel the image economy is to risk finding a hollow void at the heart of its ‘medial game’ (Frey 1991:54) and this is something Ruga consciously exploits in his critique of the ‘real’. He fashions the signifiers of a mythical nation state and plays with the expectations of their sincerity. And he is flagrantly camp about it.
I am introduced to the tapestry on the gallery floor and Ruga paces around it, twirling, sighing and drinking red wine. The tapestry is vibrating with colour and opulence and luxury. It depicts the character, The Versatile Queen Ivy, swathed in a robe and seated at a table. She holds a pen theatrically, as if to write. The image is about the fact that she is depicted as writing, it is not about what she writes. Perhaps she is thinking of Helmut Newton’s World Without Men (1984) or his first photographic essay White Women (1976) characterised by “luxurious upper-middle-class decadence” as described by the publishers Schirmer | Mosel, Germany, at its re-release in 2009 2. She is the image of an Exile and that seems more important here. The way her imaging functions in an era of LateCapitalism as part of Debord’s (1967) spectacle3 or Latour’s (2002:33) economy of images. Latour re-appropriates the Byzantine understanding of ‘economic’ to mean the long and managed flow of
To return to Sontag’s musings on the sensibility, camp “revels in artifice, stylization, theatricalization, irony, playfulness and exaggeration rather than content” (Sontage 1966). It is to hyphenate things so as to displace 1 57
their state of being (Sontag 1966; Buys 2013:82 paraphrasing Jameson). In Ruga’s work the Future ‘White Woman’ is a camp gesture. Her title is visual decoy to seduce the viewer and then confront their expectations in Ruga’s medial game of popular culture, Hollywood, art historical and socio-political referents that function to direct the viewer continuously onward in the economic flow of images. But this is not done without the critical gaze of the artist.
“You never get to Zion, ” Ruga remarks dryly. “It’s all just Utopian bullshit.” Azania is a utopia in all its incarnations: a place that is a no-place (Greek outopia). Referencing the myriad historical versions of Azania from Pliny to the Black-Consciousness Movement, Ruga’s Azania is characterized by his creative process that fashions characters. So far we have met The Versatile Queen Ivy (still only conceived in the medium of tapestry), The Future White Woman of Azania, The Flower of Azania (who have both appeared in performances), Miss Azania and, now, The Elder. Ruga’s characters embody his artistic concerns that are then realised in the mediums of performance, sculpture and tapestry.
In a current tapestry in progress, Ruga images himself as the Elder (the Seer) in a family portrait of the Azanians in Exile. Ruga as the Elder is narrator, survivor of The Purge (“of the old guard but a ghost”) and the holder of the ‘truth.’ A conscious self-portrait of the artist (for is not all creativity a selfportrait of some kind?) fashioned as a means of introducing the audience to his greater narrative - the nation of Azania. Conceived in the dates 20142094 the mythological timeline of Ruga’s nation-state alerts us to the first of many truths about its function and formal links to the ‘real’ – a parallel lineage to the post-Apartheid South African nation (1994-2014).
Ruga’s incorporation of ‘craft’ in the medium of tapestry is socio-political in intention. He appropriates the role of tapestry historically in communicating ‘nation’ where the baldachin - canopy of state or cloth of honour – was hung behind or above the throne to indicate an authority in the Medieval and Renaissance eras, but I feel he also references the way that the craft of tapestry as industry unites 158
1 2 3
With reference to the song Time to Pretend by American band/duo MGMT released in 2009. Ruga visited the Helmut Newton museum on a visit to Berlin in 2013 as part of the Between the Lines symposium. Guy Debord was a French Marxist critical theorist. His book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is a critique of post-war consumer culture and the function of mass media, which he foresaw to be replacing social engagement with representation to serve late-capitalist agendas.
communities (from cotton growers to dyers to weavers) in an economy. Citing this industry of the tapestry ‘craft’ is embedded in Ruga’s studio practice where a team of embroiderers work with the artist who first draws the designs by hand directly onto the fabric. Ruga also embroiders the more particular details while assistants do the handwork on the planes of colour. The term ‘tapestry’ is a bit of a camp notion here too as Ruga’s tapestries are not woven in the European tradition so again, in the game of visual intertextuality (my apologies Kristeva) he also references the characteristic ‘woman’s work’ of the domestically confined noblewoman. In Ruga’s economy of visual references class, gender and nation-building coalesce in his medium.
process of his art making5 . He identifies that they improve per work in their coming-into being. “My characters don’t like the world they live in but they accept their destiny,” Ruga remarks staring off into the middle-distance. And their destiny is the cathartic unravelling of our own country’s story of nationhood. The displays of nation that Ruga identifies in his narrative are iconic sagas common to most nations’ history: The Skirmish, The Exile, The Triumphant Return and The Jacobean Culling. He first introduces Azania with a procession by the Future White Woman of Azania on the streets of Johannesburg and Grahamstown. She is swathed in balloons that burst and leak her mark all over the landscape - up against ivory towers of economic inequality, up against the monuments to a South African colonial history and inside the politic of the white cube gallery space.
Ruga has also described his tapestries as a “still-place.” In the labour of this medium the artist finds the place to generate his narratives, to conceptualise his performances and bring his characters ever closer into being. Ruga has spoken about the way his characters evolve through the
In the Monarch of the Future White Woman of Azania’s Exile, it is her luxury that we must consider. The legitimacy of
The term ‘intertextuality’ was coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966 in relation to literary theory and the notion of discourse such that a single text is understood to maintain a dialogue between itself and the history and context of other literary texts.5 Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, New York: Verso, 2006::4 Presentation by the artist at the Between the Lines symposium held in Cape Town and Braunschweig in 2013 (see http://michaelis.uct.ac.za/betweenthelines/) Seminar held at the University of Cape Town on the work of Cedric Nunn a photographer who was particularly prominent during the resistance years of the 1980s in South Africa.
him a non-citizen of the white nationstate. I have always noticed the physical violence inherent in Ruga’s works: bursting balloons that bleed a liquid or a powder into the performance space, long endurance walks in high heels and the artist’s body thrashing in the spaces of the white cube gallery against walls (The Body in Question IV: La Mamma Morta (2010)) or the body of another performer (…ellipsis in Three Parts (2012)). As a nation, South Africa is desperate to try to forget its trauma in an attempt to move to an imagined future utopia - that elusive post-Apartheid state. But as the suffix suggests, our current experience is heavily conditioned by that historical event. Ruga’s Azania is at its most psychic core a catharsis, a space of myth as a place to try to commit to memory a trauma of history such that its horror is not relived indefinitely in the present moment.
the Exile status in current South African politics bears remembering here. Ruga recalls a remark at a seminar on the work of South African photographer Cedric Nunn6: “Don’t tell me there wasn’t cocaine in exile!” The agony of an exclusion from homeland is also an opportunity for new lifestyles. These complexities of the Apartheid exile is a theme that seems to be entering the post-Apartheid rhetoric as actor and playwright John Kani recently explored in Missing presented at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town this year. But the legitimacy of a returning exile, the sainthood of their trauma is something Ruga wishes to criticise here. As he talks I am distracted by a defining mark on his face. A small scar that halfforms a semi-circle from eye to lip. It is bewitching on such a photogenic profile and speaks to my imaginings of another more personal context.
And so, to prequel: Azania is Ruga’s alternative world but it is intimately linked to his context as a South African born with a black skin in Umtata, a Bantustan engineered by the Apartheid government to render
Athi and I start our conversation in a gallery space filled with someone else’s images. We gravitate to two rectangular white plinths that we appropriate as
stools, set apart from the artworks, and we begin with the spectacle, the procession, the characters and the tapestries. I am drawn in. I too am fated to pretend.
Buys, Anthea (2013) ‘Alleys, Ellipses & The Eve of Context: On Fielding Some Early Misconceptions About Athi-Patra Ruga’ in Athi-Patra Ruga The Works 2006-2013 Whatiftheworld gallery: Cape Town. Debord, Guy (1967) The Society of the Spectacle translated by Ken Knabb (2014) Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, Bureau of Public Secrets (online) available: http:// www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/index.htm (Accessed 31 May 2014). Frey, P (1991) ‘Dialogues, Teachings’ in Parkett, 29(1): 52-54. Kristeva, Julia (1966) ‘Word, Dialogue and Novel’ in Desire in Language (1980) Columbia University Press: USA. Latour, Bruno (2002) ‘What is Iconoclash? Or is there a world beyond the image wars?’ in Latour & Weibel, Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, Centre for Art and Media, MIT Press: Germany and Massachusetts, p14-37. Newton, Helmut (1976) White Woman, New York: Congreve. Newton, Helmut (1984) World Without Men, New York: Xavier Moreau. Sontag,
Interpretation (1980) Farrar, Straus & Giroux: USA.